Sunday, February 13, 2011

Epiphany 6, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 13, 2011 (The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Is He serious? Are we really supposed to disfigure and maim ourselves in order to avoid sin? After all, His logic is inescapable. It really is better to go through life missing part of your body than spend eternity apart from Him. And if that’s what it takes to avoid hell and gain heaven, then yes, we really should remove the offending parts of our bodies in order to avoid sin.

If only it were that easy. If we really could simply blame all our hateful, selfish, lustful, prideful, or covetous actions on a specific part of our body and do away with that part. By the way, one pastor in the early church, a man named Origen, actually tried it. He didn’t cut off his hand or poke out his eye, however. I won’t name the part of his body he cut off, other than to mention that his bishop asked him to quit the ministry because he was no longer, technically, a man. And so Origen was no longer eligible to preach God’s Word because of how he understood, or rather, misunderstood, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. And that’s the other problem with the idea that we can avoid sin by hurting ourselves: when we hurt ourselves we also hurt our ability to serve God and our neighbor in love. With only one eye, many of our vocations would become more difficult. The same thing is true with only one hand. And so there must be more to this passage than it would seem at first glance.

The real problem here. Is that sin does not originate in specific parts of our bodies. Sin originates in our sinful minds and hearts. And so instead of mere disfiguring and maiming, removing parts of our bodies that we can live without, what needs to be removed from us are those parts of ourselves that we cannot do without, our hearts and our minds. Stated another way, in order to remove the cause of sin from us we must be put to death. Nothing less, not even punishing ourselves or hurting ourselves in various ways, be they mental or physical, can do away with the cause of sin. Only death can do that.

But death is exactly what we instinctively try to avoid. And so we figure that if we hurt ourselves badly enough, we can dispense with the death part of the equation. And it’s not just obvious things like cutting off a hand or poking out an eye that we try, either. Monks during the middle ages would punish themselves physically in all sorts of terrible ways. Luther’s health was most likely ruined by how zealous he was at punishing himself during his younger days as a monk. Sometimes people believe that unless they’re completely miserable with guilt, constantly beating themselves up on the inside, that they’re not truly repentant of their sin. Mental self-mutilation doesn’t work any more than physical self-mutilation does, however. Death is still the only answer to the problem.

But not just any death will do, either. After all, we will all be raised up again, some to eternal life, and some to eternal judgment. Even suicide doesn’t stop that. And so what we need is the sort of death we can’t give ourselves, the only sort of death that will truly fix the situation, and that is a death that leads to resurrection. And the only way to get that is for God to give it to you as a free gift. And that’s exactly what He does, by dying in your place, and incorporating you in His death (and therefore also His resurrection to eternal life) in Holy Baptism.

And that’s what Christianity is all about. Not punishing ourselves, but Jesus dying in our place and taking us with Him. No matter how hard you try to improve your life, it’s never going to be enough. Now, I’m not saying that trying to improve your behavior is a bad thing. The less we are distracted and discouraged by our various pet sins and the guilt we experience over them, the better we are able to serve God and the neighbor in this life. But you can’t get to heaven by fixing your behavior. You can only inherit eternal life by being adopted as God’s sons. And that’s something that He does by making you His in His Son’s death and resurrection in which you became a participant at the font, and of which you eat and drink in the Holy Supper. Instead of maiming and disfiguring our bodies, we eat and drink His resurrected body which was maimed and disfigured for us. We eat and drink what was pierced with thorns, nails and a spear, beaten with metal-tipped whips, and suspended, exposed to the elements, in a manner that didn’t allow normal breathing. Even resurrected, as Thomas found out, He still bears the marks of His death for us. He was the one who entered eternal life maimed so that we wouldn’t suffer the fires of hell. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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